It is difficult to read any thoughtful account of urban life in twentieth-century America and not draw comparisons, voluntary or otherwise, with Jane Jacobs’ landmark study, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). As a resident of Greenwich Village, many of her observations derive from her experience as a New Yorker during Robert Moses’ postwar infrastructural purges, but in Death and Life Jacobs generalizes her analysis of one aspect after another of American urban planning. While she devotes much attention to the impact of monumental civic architecture and eminent domain projects on urban life, I have always regarded her analyses of street-level structural detail as ultimately more significant. Having read it, a city dweller cannot help but observe how sidewalk width, window height, and the length-width ratio of city blocks, to cite only a few examples, all contribute to the intangible character of a neighborhood. In Jacobs work the minutiae of the urban landscape grows rich with significance and consequence.
Previously invisible aspects of cities are also the subject of David Harvey’s Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. But if Jacobs’ study focuses on the causal relationships between infrastructural detail, large scale planning, and social welfare, Harvey brings our attention to the movement and accumulation of capital that silently guides the creation and destruction of civic space. We hear echoes of Jacobs in his deep antipathy for the forces that guide development and “renewal”, but where she takes issue with the methods chosen by the city planners of her age, Harvey – also the author of the superbly informative A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford, 2007) – lays the blame for urban dysfunction squarely at the foot of liberal capital markets themselves, made manifest here in the form of leviathan real estate developers in bed with civic leaders beholden to the “Party of Capital.” Modern cities, chez Harvey, are expressions of the worst ills of late capitalism, dense accumulations of self-perpetuating wealth and power whose leaders routinely betray the citizens that sustain them; the city itself is a mechanism for facilitating the net transfer of capital from poor to rich (an image that resounds throughout much of Harvey’s work). Harvey illustrates this mechanism in case studies of considerable detail in cities both domestic and international. Upon finishing Rebel Cities, it is difficult to object to Harvey’s conclusion, which he draws again and again in a variety of contexts: absent political intervention, the house always wins.
| Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution
A work of urban theory by David Harvey
Verso , 2012
Review by Scott J. Ordway